NOIR CITY | Dark City Wanderings
It’s like a religious revival tent meeting, but for cynics. Instead of their Sunday best, they wear their vintage 1940s finest. Rather than speaking in tongues, they wax on and on about who played what character in whatever desperately underrated classic. And Communion comes in the form of a big dose of black and white on the Castro Theatre’s massive screen. You’ll leave sated, exhausted, but you’ll be back tomorrow night for another double feature, day-job alertness be damned. If you’re a true acolyte, you’ll see all twenty-some movies over the ten days of NOIR CITY, the annual film festival of the Film Noir Foundation.
I’ve always loved film noir. My parents apparently never thought it odd that an eleven-year-old couldn’t get enough of The Maltese Falcon; was inviting her (probably confused but at least good-humored) friends over to watch Rear Window; and once VCRs became a thing was trotting home from the movie rental shop with whatever sounded dark: Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, The Third Man. My dad had a particular soft spot for Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, and together we tried in vain to piece together the plot of The Big Sleep, which even having read the book multiple times is incredibly hard to follow (Raymond Chandler himself allegedly said the same). But it looks superb.
Eddie Muller, founder of the Film Noir Foundation and organizer of NOIR CITY since its inception, has summarized film noir thus: “The men and women of this sinister cinematic world are driven by greed, lust, jealousy, and revenge—which leads inexorably to existential torment, soul-crushing despair, and a few last gasping breaths in a rain-soaked gutter. But damned if these lost souls don’t look sensational riding the Hades Express.”
So... Did noir make me a cynic, or did something already in Young Me gravitate toward this material, finding there something that made sense of the Evil That Men Do (or, in my case, that mean junior-high-school girls do)? My experience in the music world leads me to suspect the latter—that I was born this way, and that noir gave my imaginings form. And what a form!! Colossal glamour, pithy wit, underworld allure... Who wouldn’t want to live in a world where you could be sparklingly eloquent, successfully self-employed, adept in a fistfight, and irresistible to the ladies even if on the looks scale you’re more Fred MacMurray than Kirk Douglas?
Seeing these movies at the Castro Theatre, alongside fourteen hundred fellow travelers, takes the thing to a whole new dimension. Each evening opens with live music on the fabulous Castro Wurlitzer (recently replaced with an even more elaborate pipe/digital hybrid organ), then an acutely articulate, written-note-less introduction by the Czar of Noir (the aforementioned Mr. Muller), then the dramatic opening of the curtain to start the first feature. Each year has a theme (my personal fave so far was “international noir”), and Muller and his fellow programmers do their best to balance a few better-known titles that most people still will never have seen on the big screen, lesser-known titles that extremely few will have witnessed on the big screen, and one or two that have been saved from actual oblivion, often through a restoration directly funded by last year’s festival ticket sales. This is the goal of the nonprofit that is the foundation: to save noir films on 35mm, as they were meant to be seen. Say what you will about the viability of actual film as a medium for mass exposure to “film”—Eddie’s got a counterargument ready for you.
At this point there are numerous satellite NOIR CITY fests around the country, but San Francisco is where it all started, and where Muller grew up. He still lives here, and treats the SF iteration as the mother ship that steers the rest of the fleet. I’ve read Muller’s introduction to film noir, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir (1998), and have for the last couple of decades made little pencil checks next to the titles I’ve personally seen. Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir (2001) is the clearest manifestation of Muller’s career-long vendetta to bring the femmes of noir, fatale or otherwise, from the clichéd sidelines into the spotlight. I dutifully enrolled in Muller’s “continuing studies” course at Stanford University, “The Politics, Passions, and Personnel of Film Noir,” and I even successfully muscled my way into the gang’s inner circle, helping with the ticketing for the annual SF fest.
But at the end of the day, after you’ve completed all the reading and pondered all the theorizing and copied all the fashions and cut way too much school to watch Dialing for Dollars, the point is the theater experience. This is the “why” of the foundation: to save the films, and to show the films, at venues like the Castro. There’s got to be a really compelling reason why we keep coming back to a joint that holds 1,400 seats, puts on shows that last four or five hours, and has less than ten toilets total.
I’ve got a lot of NOIR CITY memories, but a couple stand out. The first is actually from NOIR CITY XMAS, a teaser show that happens a couple of weeks before the holidays, also at the Castro, as a kind of appetizer for the main fest coming in January. It usually features a bleak Christmas movie (I know, right?!) but this year it was Holiday Affair, a mostly-comedy with the odd bleak moment. I remember laughing so hard I was crying, right along with the crowd, fully realizing that if I’d been watching the thing at home on DVD, I would have been bored, maybe even wouldn’t have finished. I described it to Eddie the next day and he said of course that was right, that’s the power of experiencing movies in the theater. You’re physically, logistically committed, which makes you give yourself over to the larger emotive sense in the room. Sadness, injustice, intrigue, romance, glamour, and, yes, comedy are massively, massively magnified. See my religious-revival-tent metaphor that opened this piece.
This is what will be lost if the old-fashioned moviegoing experience evaporates.
Another very powerful memory of NOIR CITY is not even of being in the theater, but of reviewing the pictures taken by the photographer one year. I scrolled through crowd shot after crowd shot—hipsters, non-hipsters, old people, the occasional celeb (Chris Isaak and Jello Biafra have been noted attendees), and views of the stage showing Muller doing his thing. What stopped me in my tracks was a shot of what Eddie sees from the stage. There must be no sight on earth more satisfying than an ocean of folks who’ve paid their money and made the trek to love and support your dream, and gain something soul-satisfying that could be delivered, for us dark cynical believers, no other way.